So I get this text from a friend of mine. He asks if I’ve finished my article. Not quite yet I say, said I was contemplating the actual apocalypse now underway. And that was last week’s apocalypse. My mom said the four living presidents were doing a PSA encouraging donations to help those devastated. Was it just for last week’s catastrophe or those underway or in the on-deck circle? I wondered if each president would be each seated on a white horse as prophesized.
This friend Chris, I had met up with him and his daughter Emily in downstate Illinois for the big event – which doesn’t seem like such a big event given the latest big event, that seems to top all other big events, as big events go. And then the next big event that tops the last big event.
It had been my intention to put together a piece on my experience taking in the eclipse, the scene, the chaos – then say something like it was my involvement as a Dry Run of the Apocalypse. Yes, I had wanted to go to another planet, wrote about that, and Antarctica was as close as I got with that one. So, I thought seeing the world go dark as the Ancients did and get all freaked out was as close as I was going to get for the Apocalypse.
I guess I’m just a little too far North.
Now it seems like we get an apocalyptic event every week with others just looming over the horizon.
Evacuating from the eclipse, I got back after being stranded, (more or less), in bumper to bumper traffic crawling, at zero to fifteen — for hundreds of miles. I thought about how this would be what it was like to experience a catastrophe of epic proportions, such as the Apocalypse. Driving from the Apocalypse. It would all be in good fun, reflecting on how it would be – trying to escape, the futility, the fervor, the magnitude of really big and relentless anxiety. Now it’s happening for millions for real. It’s not so funny.
The apocalypse as a dry run: I didn’t think of ultimately being judged. Although I did get a speeding ticket while down there.
But I was just driving home from a couple days of ecliptic camping, as I said: evacuating from the eclipse. Seeing the total eclipse. Even if it the weather was such that I saw nothing because it was raining or there was a cloud, I was prepared to experience it electromagnetically with the blockage of the sun’s rays allowing long distance radio to propagate as it does at night. Except it would just be just a couple minutes, I brought a couple radios along with my special glasses. No big deal in the scope of things really. Things were supposed to happen like: power would be interrupted, cell phones wouldn’t work, GPS would go down and there would be a run on food and gasoline. Not really. There were some long lines for the rest room at a truck stop on the way back near Effingham. And people were pulled off on the roadside and packed the rest areas to sleep. Not too apocalyptic.
Instead it was just people from around the country taking in an astronomical event and hanging out. Not a meteorological calamity. It wasn’t like the people in Houston and the surrounding region living through a real, instead of an imagined, hypothetical nightmare. Or Irma, or whatever the apocalypse of the week is called.
I don’t think you can drive away from the Apocalypse. I think it is so written. There are no signs along the highway as with hurricanes, no signs: “Apocalypse Evacuation Route.”
There were signs for parking and where you could not park, as the relative populated area swelled with activity, ecliptic revelers. The Great American Eclipse. And just like how we get 500 year floods all the time now, and once in a generation hurricanes all the time, and earthquakes – if you missed the once-in-a-lifetime event, there’s another in 2024. Even if we’re atomized by North Korea or something like a nuclear power plant blows up because it can’t stay cool like the Arkeda chemical plant in Texas, there will be another eclipse, even if no one gets to see it.
By the way, has anyone heard if those nuclear power plants along the gulf are underwater, if they are keeping those fuel rods cool? They never mentioned them, but they’re easy enough to look up on line and see them on the map.
And how do humans keep cool?
I listened a lot to KTRH out of Houston online, during Harvey. And during Katrina, I could hear WWL on radio. Radio waves bouncing off the ionosphere, at night, long distance communication. I mentioned that earlier; if I didn’t lead you to believe I was really a geek then. I did so for an Illinois news man, looking for a story. Like I did for the reporter — actually the photo editor from Springfield. Cycling is probably geeky enough. I ventured out on a ride the day before and he asked if he could get my picture. He snapped one, then two and the next thing I knew I felt like I was part of a fashion expose’ of some kind. Then he got out a little digital recorder and asked if he could ask a few questions. Was I going to use the bike for transportation in lieu of the roads being clogged with people taking in the eclipse? No. Did I follow cycle racing? Not really. When I mentioned the radio waves bouncing off the line of darkness, and I didn’t care if I saw the eclipse because that phenomenon was even more rare; he stopped, there was a hint of disappointment and that was the end of questioning. He handed me his card and said the photos would be on line in the paper. I got on my bike and started pedaling.
I rode on up Smiley, as the locals call it — as it’s named for the water tower with a smiley wearing a bowtie, signature of the politician, former Senator Paul Simon, his hometown – the road of hills, twists and turns, wooded ravines out of Makanda toward US 51. To the left Anna, going right Carbondale. Yes they do have hills in Illinois, downstate Illinois borders the Mississippi where it takes some weird direction from an anomaly that should let loose with an earthquake as it did just before the founding of this nation and rival anything anywhere. Another apocalypse if you will. In fact had a 3.1 around there just a couple days ago.
Cycling then, I would have two flats, one I had a spare for. The other would take me spilling into the ditch at a nice clip and a nice walk to Carbondale for repairs four miles in 96 degree heat. An Illinois DOT worker helped me with the first, recounting the story of his friend who was hit by a truck on the road I just came up and died.
Again, my mishap: minor. During Katrina, people would call in on WWL, they talked about levees being breached – as the radio man returned that officials said that it wasn’t happening. It was. So, was that fake news or orchestrated propaganda? They wanted to keep people safe they said later on, as there isn’t really enough room on the highways. Just as they did on KTRH for Harvey. And the story continues on and on. On, WIOD, Miami for Irma, with construction and people evacuating from once side then the other in Florida. Weren’t we supposed to have jetpacks by now? Lane closures for the apocalypse? They did open the tolls and make them free anyway. See, the government does care. Flight. There isn’t enough room on the roads anywhere at virtually anytime, anywhere – even when the weather is good.
A meteorologist on WIOD said if they start getting these every other year (and he said loved South Florida) places like Upper Michigan and even Milwaukee didn’t look too bad.
Keeping cool. Well, the police chief for Houston said that besides having a special place in hell for looters, there would be jail. He went on trying to question: is it robbery at night and looting by day or is it just looting during a special event? Like a catastrophic hurricane. Personally, I question, will there be looting during the apocalypse? You used to see bumper stickers, “During the Apocalypse, I want your car.” I think those people either went to hell or removed the bumper stickers because they were worried about going to hell. You used to hear that during the apocalypse, you would have all these abandoned cars on the expressway, because the good people would be teleported to that better place, while the rest would get their choice of really good soccer mom SUVs and pick-up trucks abandoned. I think it’s supposed to look like I-75 in Atlanta when they get an inch or so of snow.
One hundred a night for camping on a slice of land that had once housed a staging area during the 1800s for farmers to bring their apples and peaches to train. Now it was a wooded field with trees cut hastily for the two and a half minute or so event. Makanda, Illinois – the crossroads, as the 2024 eclipse crosses there again, seven years from now. I ran into an IT guy from Chicago initially at Giant City State Park waiting for the information center to open, asking if there was camping there. Of course not. He too rolled into Makanda as that was thee place among other self proclaimed places as being thee place and promptly got stuck in a swampy section of the field inquiring about parking. But for me, and the rest in Makanda, it was thee place.
Too much for him and he rolled on – after being pulled out by the pick-up of the guy who owned adjacent land, standing guard, that did not want any campers, did not appreciate any squatters, or city folk getting stuck where anyone with any pick-up could just motor through. I parked on dry ground. I figured I had already spent enough on gas travelling 400 miles and no hotel could be found either so I agreed to the price. Some friends I know did find a dumpy motel south of Cairo, Cairo, Illinois – they booked in advance, across the border in Kentucky. $140 a night, looked like it went for forty during pre and post-ecliptic times. For an added bonus, they said they had a bloated drunk teetering in the parking lot, looking up at sun without the special glasses, where they sat in their chairs with gear that they had brought.
Special glasses — I had asked at Badger Welding in Madison, if I could use welding glasses for observing the eclipse. “You do and you’ll go blind. Welding goggles are Shade 4, you need 14.”
In Makanda, I walked into camp and a woman and her adult daughter from New Orleans, sitting besides their 5th Wheel, gave me some French Roast coffee and said Bud, the owner would be back to talk about camping and you pay him. Prefers cash. People from all over came to this tiny hippie town with its Solar Eclipse Café, that above the transom, and elsewhere in town and sold-out tee-shirts. A rendition of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” with the anxiety ridden screamer, in this piece: an impressionistic eclipse in the sky behind him. Coffee was needed. I’ve had that coffee in the dark orange can before, down there, in the Crescent City – and you can find it up here, at high-end places. They usually sell Illi brand too if they do.
Another good one. Not everyone wanted to pay the hundred, my friends car camped. One man with his two children – he chose to squat. Bud told him the price and he selected to set up on the land that Bud didn’t own. Bud said he couldn’t do that either so Dad showed his kids he was no fool and smashed the back window of Bud’s pick up with a bat. The police came and they knew him. Of course they did. He wasn’t going down without a fight. They knew him because he was one of their own – off duty. I don’t know if it’s police brutality when the police stomp on a fellow officer’s head, when he’s on the ground with those special boots, and you probably get special points if it’s done before your fellow official’s children. As I walked to the Solar Eclipse Café, hours later, the day of the occurrence, Dad was sitting on the bed of his pick-up, cooling off. I said hello, his face covered now in dried blood. He nodded and said hello. Still had his teeth. Squad cars and trucks, a matter that probably just disappeared.
My neighbor, well my neighbor at the camp, he was there from LA, he and his wife had rented a van, flying into Memphis. He painted a sign as I set up my tent. My first thought, what’s that chemical stench? Then I noticed the grinding drone of campers with their portable generators to run their AC and fridges to keep their beer cold. Then a real drone. Then a train roared by braking for a curve that sounded like nails on chalkboard and sharpening knives. I forgot about it. The crossroads, the dates: August 21, 2017 and April 8, 2024 in black on white: his sign. When I returned from my ride after a little touch of sun stroke, he was doing the finishing touches on shirts he was selling commemorating the event. In Carbondale, where I found a bike shop to sell me an innertube, I could have bought many shirts, trinkets and artwork for the event. Carbondale, a pile of coal next the university as I walked onward. A carnival atmosphere, with the Eclipse Express coming out of Chicago on Amtrak and people pulling their wheeled suitcases, back packs, dogs in the baskets of bicycles – live music and rides. Instead I bought some type of gel at the Cycle Doctor that was supposed to be high in energy. An innertube and some that energy gel I ingested; I was on my way. The gel, it made me nauseous as I became undone on the caffeine, niacin and espresso flavored maltodextrin goo, didn’t do so well on the ride back. A dead armadillo upside down with rigor, on its back, along the roadside could have been me.
Armadillo in Illinois?
I needed a shower. I walked around the mote, a near stagnant stream that could have used a bridge over it, frogs croaking. To save the walk of a couple hundred yards, it needed a drawbridge, across the road, that seemed much longer than it was, after my momentous twenty-something mile ride cut short by calamity. The camp fee included a shower. A shower that had garden hoses set on the lawn in Bud’s friend’s front yard “that heat up pretty good,” Bud said, for a shower in what looked like a porta-john with plumbing. I sat under a cabana waiting, while women brushed their hair readying themselves. One asked what I had been up to as I was totally baked by the sun and maybe just redder than usual from sun stroke. I talked about wanting to ride more but was definitely looking forward to a shower now. She said she had just seen her son play football just yesterday. That’s what she was up to, before coming down. Highschool football. Proud of her son. She asked if I was a fan, a Packers fan, learning that I too was from Wisconsin and went onto say her son had his father’s genes, when it came to football. Except that he was a really nice guy, unlike his father. Do I need to hear this? He won his Super Bowl ring but lost his marriage because he was a real… and she stopped when her friend got out of the shower and it was my turn.
That morning, I jammed with some musicians as the night before, from nearby Southern Illinois, Louisiana and Kentucky, with my harmonicas, that I usually have with me, around what should have been a camp fire – but the musicians had musical instruments only, and no fire wood. It was really too hot anyway. They had guitars, and a wash tub bass. The guy with the washboard changed his mind. Bob, the one musician, for the most part running the show, also had some cannons with him, cannons he made, looked like right out of the Civil War. Cannons that he was going to shoot off at the precise moment. “A range of two miles,” Bob says. He has a fort too. “As big as a city block and walls thirty feet high,” he says. At home, he shoots bowling balls and alternators. Makes his living fixing alternators, but also mentioned farming, his sheep and one being picked off by a mountain lion recently.
Talked about during the eclipse, crickets start up, roosters crow, and I wondered if the frogs would croak as they do at dusk back in Wisconsin wetlands. He said the sound the frogs make reminded him of the sound of an oil rig. “And ain’t nothing prettier than sheep grazing in a pasture full of oil rig.” My friend that came down from Wisconsin commented that it’s probably the oil, not the alternators and sheep – that finance the building of the fort, the log buildings within and the cannons. “Thirty feet high and as big as a city block.” His friend, another guitarist, Jeff, is the Chief of Police back home down there. When he handed me his card, I marveled, jamming not only with a cannoneer and fortress aficionado, but a Chief of Police. A first for me. I’m used to performing with villains and scallywags. He chuckled saying it’s nothing really, just that no one else in the small town he’s in, wants to do it. They both sang. Both their wives in the audience sang along. We did old timey numbers and Sonny from the Louisiana bijou, encouraged to play bass, said no and sipped a beer, instead let Bob’s daughter at it instead.
The next thing I knew it was almost time for the event to commence.
A few clouds in what had had otherwise had been a perfectly clear sky. Chem trails paralleled the path and as they dissipated, just a few cumulus clouds to the edges of the sky.
You didn’t see the moon racing toward the sun. Only when it started to occlude its face one bite at a time. Shadows of miniature crescents appeared below the trees and looked like the motion of wind swept sand.
In the final moments, the instant seemed to stretch and stand outside of time, the sun became crisp. Piercing bright and fiery at the edges, the mountains of the moon. For some two and one half minutes, the sun sizzled surreptitiously inward on itself, as the dragon, the dragon ate its tail. Eclipsed by the moon. The sky became not dark but changed. Clouds on the horizon illuminated with an altered luminance. Not dark. Not dusk. Not dawn. A rare glimpse into an occurrence that speaks to the temporal impermanence – of the entirety of our sliver in time, carving out our existence.
Everyone cheered and even the sun may have heard.
As I mentioned earlier, I was prepared with some two radios to detect if the path of darkness would drag ionospheric changes thus allowing me to receive distant stations as can be heard at night. Heard during the periods just before and the change from night to day and day to night. Forget that.
Instead I just watched the world around me. Like everyone else. A collective “aww” when it totality ended, and the little crescents came back – everywhere. No cannon.
Awestruck like a little kid, like everyone else, a few stars like you never see by day, and planets in the daytime sky. Even my friends Chris and Emily proclaimed it was worth the drive. Apocalyptic.
Maybe we’ll have lousy weather on April 8, 2024 and I can see if my hunch about the radio is right. Otherwise I’ll be looking up at the sky, most likely, once again. By then Makanda, Illinois should be right on the Gulf Coast with the southern states underwater, as at one point, the waters don’t reside. Do they? That’s not prophesy. That’s just algorithm, science, fake news or maybe just science fiction, we’ll see – until we can no longer stay afloat.
Photos by Jeff Worman
Jeff Worman lives in Walworth County, Wisconsin where there is water and a crisp, cool night sky conducive to the creative process. He has been drawing and writing since he was able to hold a pencil in his hand. Worman started out as a high school intern at the Bugle-American, an alternative newspaper in Milwaukee, and was a founder and long standing contributor to the Crazy Shepherd which emerged from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is published currently as the Shepherd Express. Worman’s column The Hourly Why was conceived in 1982, published broadly in underground newspapers over the decades and can be found online today at www.thehourlywhy.com. He has a great love of the outdoors and champions charities by riding those long distance centuries on his road bike to raise funds. Contact the author.